working girl – street danger

The “White Slave Trade”

In 1913 a panic over “the white slave trade” swept North America.  The term reflected the titillating notion of foreign men preying on vulnerable girls, condemning them to a life of degradation as prostitutes or “fallen” women.  It was rumoured that in most towns and cities an international underground organization was discretely luring young women from the streets.

Fear over this phenomenon was whipped up by moral reformers whose cause was social purity.  The innocent-girls-in-peril narrative was exploited by print media, motion pictures and popular theatre who happily fed the public appetite for journalistic reports along with screen and theatrical treatments of the subject. Legislation was passed, police forces were put on the alert and parents cautioned girls to be wary of anyone who approached them on the streets.

Horrors of the White Slave Trade, The Mighty Crusade To Protect The Purity of Our Homes, Clifford G. Roe, 1911 cover  Horrors of the White Slave Trade, The Mighty Crusade to Protect The Purity of Our Homes Clifford G. Roe, 1911

Horrors of the White Slave Trade, Sixty Thousand White Slaves Die Every Year, Clifford G. Roe, 1911 Horrors of the White Slave Trade, illustration: Sixty Thousand White Slaves Die Every Year

In their annual meeting that spring, The National Council of Women of Canada proposed that prostitution and its propagation through white slavery was “the greatest problem Canada has to solve.” (Globe May 9, 1913)    The Anglican and Presbyterian Church authorities echoed the  dramatic positioning of the issue at their respective annual meetings. Greater social control through policing, prosecution and the saving and rehabilitation of “the fallen” were called for.

white slavery and National Council of Women Star May 8, 1913 p5-page-001 The Toronto Star Weekly, May 8, 1913 p.5 (click image to enlarge)

Control of Toronto Streets and “Mashers”

In Toronto the concern over women’s safety on the streets was reflected in the decisions of Magistrate George Denison who presided in the Police Court.  Under the catch-all charge of vagrancy, he dealt harshly with “mashers”, men attempting to pick-up or pester females.  On April 19 The Toronto Star printed his call for a police crusade against males who dared to “strike up acquaintanceships on the spur of the moment.”

Court Room, Old City Hall between 1908 and 1910, CTA F1244 it637 Court Room, Old City Hall 

Nonetheless, when in June an Anglican bishop accused the police force of ignoring two hundred local cases of white slavery, Juvenile Court Commissioner Starr flatly denied its existence here: “While there are many girls who leave home, I would hesitate to say that they are lured away.  I do not think there are any young girls lured into white slavery in Toronto.” (Star June 13, 1913)

The many home-leaving girls was the basis of “the girl problem, a widespread concern that impressionable girls, living independently, would take up corrupting habits and behaviors ranging from wearing inappropriately alluring clothing to sexual promiscuity or prostitution.

Fonds 1244 it493 detail Yonge Street at Queen Street  detail

Young women as young as fourteen were entering the urban work force in the thousands becoming a strong presence in downtown spaces. There, on crowded sidewalks they rubbed shoulders with men from all walks of life.

These “working girls” contributed to the success of Toronto’s entertainment sector by bringing males in their wake to cafes, dance halls and amusement parks. Experiencing both the negative and positive effects of their hold on popular imagination, they were avid fans of the many shows and movies in which the plot revolved around a strong central female character that was often both adventurer and victim.

A Red Girl, front of Red Mill Theatre, Yonge north of Queen  Red Mill Theatre, north of Queen Street on Yonge Street  Doug Talylor discusses the Red Mill Theatre on Yonge street pictured in these three photos in his essay Toronto Theatres and the Golden age of Silver Screen.

Red Mill Theatre, north of Queen on Yonge street Red Mill Theatre, north of Queen Street on Yonge Street 

Crowd in front of the Red Mill Theatre, 183 Yonge street, June 1914 In “A Singular Cynic” released the summer of 1914, a young woman placed in a position of choosing between two suitors turns the tables on them by choosing a third.


Two features produced in New York, widely banned and even more widely discussed, traded on the interest in white slavery. Film stills and plot summaries were available through movie industry magazines and mainstream newspapers. Progenitors of the “True Crime” genre, these movies were the first in North America to supplant fictional stories with re-enactments of real-life drama.

The Inside of the White Slave Traffic poster

Released in 1913, both movies skirted some censors by being framed as cautionary tales with a strong moral outlook. The Lure of New York was promoted as ‘showing the power of resistance in a virtuous woman and the even more infamous The Trade in White Slaveryas an educational film endorsed by experts in the new field of Sociology.  Their marketing stressed that they were shot in the actual locations so offering “street-proofing” experience to its audiences— a visual primer of the urban spaces and scenarios to be avoided by women. Of course, for those living in small towns, it offered titillating glimpses of the crucible of vice that was the modern metropolis.

The two features positioned themselves against the message of the purity crusaders.  By breaking-down and re-enacting the slavers’ methods and victims’ circumstances, they shifted the focus from the themes of morality and salvation to that of the city environment that fostered crime.

Annie outside store Houston, Inside the White Slave Trade 1913

Both “documentary” and moralistic treatments itemized the urban spaces in which women should be on guard. Busy streets, back alleys, and narrow store entrances where men congregated were shown as places of palpable danger. These were the worm holes where women could fall from the stability of the respectable city to its hidden subterranean depths.

Horrors of the White Slave Trade, the Mighty Crusade to Protect The Purity Our Homes, Clifford G. Roe 1911 illustrationHorrors of the White Slave Trade, Drugged and Led...  Clifford G. Roe, 19111 Horrors of the White Slave Trade, illustrations

The Toronto view from the street can be drawn from two types of reporting in The Toronto Daily Star.

The first account below is drawn from investigative reporting by a young woman writer who sets out to follow in the footsteps of “Factory Girls” by seeking downtown factory work, the second from another woman’s description of the barrage of unwelcome male attention she received while working as a soloist in a downtown Church choir. The last three accounts of street harassment are drawn from police court reports.

The perception of these particular situations and places as dangerous can be considered by today’s reader as quaint and deluded.  By matching these with contemporary maps and photographs of the streets under discussion, the objective and subjective dimensions of Toronto’s circa 1913 “danger” zones,   becomes somewhat more visible.

Dead End

Excerpt from: Farmers’ Daughter Tells Her Experience of a Big City Factory. A “Highpay Job” at $4.50 per week in a Factory.  Toronto Star Weekly, Woman’s Section June 28, 1913

 …“The last one I asked in my search for Pearl street directed me very minutely. Pointing to an electrical sign some distance down Adelaide street, he explained: “Right underneath that sign is an alley; go down the alley and turn to your left and that’s Pearl street.”

An Unwelcome Adventure

It did not sound very alluring at the time, especially as it was an unlovely-looking part of the city. But it sounded less alluring when I reached the alley and found that it led into a disused lumber yard.  When I paused to look for some indication of the number I was seeking, two young men appeared on the scene, and as they looked clean and pleasant I asked them if they would direct me to Pearl street, foolishly explaining my predicament.

Pearl street looking west from York street 1925 Pearl Street, looking west from York Street 

Farmer's Daughter Pearl Street, Wright's Directory Toronto 1913  route followed by author, click image to enlarge,  drawn from Goad’s Fire Map of Toronto 1913

They looked at one another rather oddly when I mentioned the street, and one volunteered: “Why I’m going there to-night; would that be too late for you?” Now, I know nothing of the city’s wiles, but I knew that this suggestion was not even reasonable; so I thanked them and withdrew.  … I had only gone a few yards, however, when the first youth hailed me and came running after me.  “Are you going to be at Pearl street tonight little girl?” he asked very kindly. I thought by his manner that he was a Good Samaritan about to warn me to keep away from Pearl street.  “No,” I replied. “Why?” Taking me by the arm he murmured confidentially: “Oh! I’m going to be there tonight you know, and I thought I might meet you.” I turned and fled in horror. By this time I was almost faint with a nameless fear. This great city seemed to be set with terrible pitfalls.  I knew not what it was that I dreaded, but, as in the dark one’s flesh crawls with a fear of the unknown, so a chill terror clutched my heart.” Star Women’s Section June 21, 1913


York east side north of Adelaide York Street, east side, looking north from Adelaide Street note men lingering in store doorways

Excerpt from: “Mashers I Have Met”, Some Interesting Experiences of Girl Soloist in One of Toronto’s Biggest Choirs, Toronto Star Weekly, General Section, July 5, 1913

 I find that other girls are accosted by men on the street as well as myself and now I have come to the conclusion that my early fear that something in my appearance was to blame is not true.  The other day I was walking down Yonge street, and the only thing that would distinguish me from any other girl was a monster, orange-colored Bulgarina bonnet with a rather conspicuous plume. Perhaps I should blame what happened on the hat—or on the wearer for choosing it. But I was walking close to the stores and passed by a cigar store within a few inches of a man lounging in the doorway. I didn’t see him until after I heard a voice say in most pronounced and very friendly tones:

  “Why –how –do—you—do?”

   It sounded for all the world like a friendly greeting, and you know how you naturally turn around in such a case. So I turned and stopped for half a moment, and stared him right in the face. I didn’t recognize him, of course, and quickly turned to hasten on my way downtown. He spoke again and said:

“You dear little girl with the curly hair…”

I gave him such a look as one Toronto masher will never forget, I can tell you!

the inside of the white slave traffic entrance to drugstore Men lingering outside store, scene from The Trade in White Slavery

Yonge Street, “Highway of Mashers”

Yonge street is a well-known “mashers” highway, and three men were lifted off it last night … at the corner of Queen street. Constable Flynn had trouble with the three men… because they wouldn’t move on, but would stroll from one corner to the other. Finally, about midnight, a young girl came up Yonge street and was followed by all three. Constable Flynn followed up the street.  At Shuter street, the girl ran across to Constable Davies and asked him to walk up the street with her, as the men were speaking to her, Constable Flynn arrived on the scene, told his end of it, and the two officers chased and caught the three mashers. Toronto Daily Star, Sept. 10, 1913

Yonge street looking north from Queen F1244 it495 Yonge Street looking north from Queen Street 

Yonge street at Shuter 1912 F1244 it497 Northeast corner of Yonge Street and Shuter Street 

Pursuit into BackAlleys

Magistrate Denison committed Lusk to jail for thirty days, without the option of a fine….

It appears that the lady left a restaurant and waited outside while Smith ‘phoned and while he was away Lusk had accosted her and jostled another man against her. Lusk would have escaped after the assault except that Constable Hobson, Yonge, heard what had transpired and gave pursuit. Lusk ran through a hotel, and up O’Keefe lane as far as Wilton avenue before the officer caught him. Toronto Daily Star,Aug. 31, 1911 p2

Street Johnny get away map  route followed by “Lusk” the masher, click image to enlarge,  drawn from Goad’s Fire Map of Toronto 1913

“Mashers in Autos”

mashers in autos, globe, april 30, 1913 p9 Globe April 30, 1913 p.9

 Auto Ride at Edge of Town

Found guilty by the jury of attempting a serious offence against Gertrude Broadhead, William Derry was remanded for sentence by Judge Morgan yesterday afternoon.

The girl’s story was that she and Lillian Horton met them in front of a garage on Roncescalles… they were going to a house on Indian road when the boys coaxed them to go for a ride. The girls refused, but said they would go with them if they would take them to the Indian road house.

The boys kept on driving until Lambton was reached, when the auto was stopped, and the girls rode back to the city in a passing rig. “I was trying to get out of the auto all the time, but I could not get the door open. Hunter kept on asking me to sit closer to him and give him a kiss. When he did not stop I said I would jump out and kill myself. When we stopped it was dark and I did not know where we were. 

Star, May 13, 1913 p3

Dundas & Roncesvalles streets looking north 1912 Dundas & Roncesvalles streets looking north 1912

This story relates to previous post:

St. Clair West Perceived Safety


the mystery of the girl in the corn stook

Further reading:

Patriarchy at work: Toronto’s working women circa 1914, by Rehman Mir

Toronto’s girl problem: the perils and pleasures of the city, 1880-19130 by Carolyn Strange